The revolution will be flat packed
There is, or at least has been, a genuine conundrum in Australian furniture design – a conundrum of price.
Those in the market for a new dining table, for example, have essentially had two choices – a cheap and cheerful imported option priced around $400, or something sourced at one of a handful of excellent high-end stores priced in excess of $3000. The gaping hole in the market between these two extremes seems to have been largely ignored by local designers until now, simply because it’s just incredibly difficult to design and manufacture furniture in Australia at an accessible cost.
Australian designers struggle to compete with imported goods on price and, for consumers with a bigger budget, the lure of classic European furniture and lighting often outweighs the appeal of products designed locally. Australian designers have been left acknowledging an obvious gap in the market, but unable to fill it.
In the past 12 months, however, we’ve seen something new. Following Swedish retail giant Ikea, Australian designers of various levels have gone back to the drawing board, experimenting with a range of products cleverly designed for self-assembly. Flat-packed furniture need no longer be associated with flimsy materials and poor craftsmanship. Instead, a new breed of designers is demonstrating that flat-packed furniture using solid, quality timbers with highly resolved fastening systems could perhaps finally fill that elusive gap between mass-market and high-end design for Australian customers.
Newcomer NOMI (nomi.com.au) launched with a bang late last year, offering an extensive range of flat-packed furniture including tables, storage systems and seating, sold online and delivered within 28 days to most capital cities. This ambitious venture is the brainchild of Sydney-based co-founders Michael Grassi, Henry Gresson and award-winning designer Tomek Archer.
“For NOMI, our vision was to make designer furniture accessible on a national scale,’’ explains Gresson, ‘‘not just in high-end boutique stores in the major cities.” The flat-pack approach provided the ideal platform for this model, allowing this lean start-up the flexibility to offer an impressive debut collection of solid timber furniture at accessible prices.
For an online business with bulky product and no physical showroom, keeping transport costs down is key. “The obvious benefit of flat-packed furniture is that it allows for a much easier and affordable way to transport and distribute your products,” Gresson says. From a manufacturing perspective, removing pre-assembly from the manufacturing process also keeps production costs down, without compromising on quality.
On a smaller scale, Melbourne design studio Dowel Jones (doweljones.com) creates a range of lighting and functional objects. Its first offering is the Mr Dowel Jones lamp, a streamlined floor or table lamp made from timber dowel and a customised joint system, originally designed using 3D printing technology but now produced locally from compression-moulded rubber. All components slot together, requiring no fasteners or tools.
“The original brief we set for ourselves was to design a lamp series that could be the lightest, and be packaged the smallest,” say designers Adam Lynch and Dale Hardiman. “What we attempt to do with all our products is to simplify down to bare essentials, without compromising on aesthetic values, all whilst minimising materials and processes.” They are developing a range of new commercial furniture and lighting using the same assembly system.
Hailing from Auckland, but with a strong Australian customer base, Douglas and Bec (douglasandbec.co.nz) have always been conscious of the need for efficient packaging and shipping methods. Their Make Your Own lamp, released in 2013, is a response to their growing international clientele. With its timber components and contrast coloured details, the lamp mimics the styling of Douglas and Bec’s premium range of lamps, but is designed entirely for self-assembly, keeping the price under $300. In the first week of its release, the lamp was sent to customers in the US, Europe and Australia without a hitch.
Aside from the obvious efficiencies of the self-assembly approach, for many designers there is a certain appeal, too, in allowing the end user to become part of the creative process. “We love that the customer gets to be a part of the design process, through decisions on cord, base and shade colour,” says Rebecca Dowie of Douglas and Bec. By inviting this level of customisation, there’s an added appeal for design-savvy customers.
Young Sydney designer Henry Wilson (henrywilson.com.au) also sees value in offering customers a meaningful way to connect to the objects he designs. His A-joint series offers a utilitarian but deceptively robust and versatile joint system, designed to work with standard timber sizes, allowing users to create various objects, from stools to clothes racks, benches to tables. “Users feel a sense of connection to objects that they can understand the construction of,” he says.
The bracket is sold with a lifetime warranty, and can be purchased online, with or without timber componentry. “Our A-joint unites simple function with limitless form. You can use it to make anything you like,” Wilson says.
In Melbourne, lighting and homewares designer Cindy-Lee Davies of Lightly (lightly.com.au) has developed a range of leather products, again sold with or without their corresponding timber componentry. Assemblages is an elegant collection of multifunctional leather pieces, including shelves, a side table and a raw leather girth belt. “The three styles are interactive pieces that allow the user to author their own lifestyle, combining various found objects to create functional three-dimensional pieces of furniture for the home,” Davies says.
By designing with rigorous efficiency, minimising both production and distribution costs in one fell swoop, a flat-pack revolution is under way. Suddenly, it is possible to buy a quality, locally produced solid-timber dining table in Australia for under $1500. Things are looking up.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 26, 2014 as "The revolution will be flat packed". Subscribe here.